‘Being Built Together’ by Dr Andrew Rogers

A version of this paper was presented at The Urban Sacred in Southwark conference on 20 April 2016.

Being Built Together: Revisiting a story of new black majority churches in Southwark
Dr Andrew Rogers, University of Roehampton

The Being Built Together project (2011-13) investigated the demographics and priorities of new black majority churches (nBMCs) in the London Borough of Southwark. Given the rapid growth of nBMCs in London and especially in Southwark, the project had a special emphasis on nBMC places of worship in a context of high demand and low supply of suitable premises. How such places of worship shape and reflect nBMC practice was a key focus, alongside considering the planning policy issues. The subsequent AHRC Faith and Place network (2014-16) developed these issues in a multi-faith and national context.

Old Kent Road sign outside The Dun Cow - wikicommons - general or 4.4
Credit: Wikimedia commons, SoxFan

In this talk I revisit the Being Built Together story three years on, also combining perspectives from the Faith and Place network. I ask the question ‘In what ways are nBMCs encountered visually and aurally in Southwark?’, taking a cue from the Urban Sacred project. This is addressed in three ways; firstly, examining the scale of the encounter; secondly, encountering nBMCs through their premises; and thirdly, encountering nBMCs through their practices.

Figure 1.1

In terms of scale, we found 240+ nBMCs in Southwark, with nearly half of these in one postcode, SE15, or Peckham. Four particular areas of nBMC concentration were identified in the northern half of the Borough, with the Old Kent Road a key focus. The resurgence of Christianity in London in its largely Pentecostal forms was noted, alongside the paradox of London Christianity, which has a 5.2% decline in London Christian identification (2001-11), yet a 16% growth in church attendance (2005-12).

Encountering nBMCs through their premises was addressed through considering the typical functional aesthetic of the buildings often within distinctly humble settings. The extent to which nBMCs were reconfiguring the religious landscape of Southwark was considered, especially in relation to the planning system. The contrast between nBMC exteriors (locations and buildings) with their signboards and intense interior worship spaces was drawn out – a symbolic juxtaposition that is given expression in a highly aspirational theology (such a juxtaposition was drawn out in the Tate Modern exhibition, Sunday Service.

Encountering nBMCs through their practices was less prominent in public space, but may be evident through taking the bus on a Sunday morning, seeing worshippers dressed in white clothes or traditional African dress, street evangelism, or through forms of nBMC local community engagement. We found that many encounters were through neighbourhood responses to planning applications which did not appreciate nBMC practices as especially sacred. Loud worship and increased traffic and parking were common complaints, sometimes characterising nBMCs as ‘not from here’, despite Southwark having over 47,000 African residents. The full report goes into some detail over the complexities of nBMCs and planning, but it was pointed out that planning applications were, somewhat surprisingly, indicators of the sacred in Southwark.

In conclusion, it was pointed out that there is a limited awareness of nBMCs in some quarters, which can lead to a lack of understanding of nBMC symbols, signs and practices, and so sometimes to suspicion as well. Drawing on prior research regarding patterns of relationship between faith groups and local planning authorities (Gale & Peach, 2003), which can also structure public encounters more generally, I questioned whether nBMCs were genuinely embraced as ‘of’ the city. Promising media coverage of the Tate Modern Sunday Service exhibition goes some way to reshaping perceptions of the nBMC sacred, as in the Independent’s headline “Hallelujah Southwark”.

Further reading: